The Pittsburgh Steelers silenced the tough-talking New York Jets with a 24-19 win in the AFC Championship game on Sunday, setting up a Super Bowl showdown with the Green Bay Packers.
While the Steelers and their fans celebrated a third trip to the Super Bowl in six years, the Jets were left crushed and for the first time this season were lost for words after seeing their season end with a defeat in the AFC title game for the second consecutive year.
The Steelers will now travel to Dallas for a Feb. 6 meeting with the Packers.
“Let us bath in this [victory], we’ll be ready to deal with those guys [the Packers] tomorrow,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “There are 32 teams that start this journey and now there are two left.”
The agonizing defeat ended a spectacular playoff run by the brash Jets, who had reached the AFC Championship recording road wins over the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots, but Heinz Field has never been a happy hunting ground for the New Yorkers, who have won just once in nine trips to Pittsburgh since the NFL-AFL merger.
“We came up short tonight, just like we did last year, one game away from the big game,” subdued Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “We played a good half, we didn’t play a good game.”
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had an unspectacular game, completing just 10 of 19 passes for 133 yards and two interceptions, but he also ran for a key touchdown, underlining his status as the NFL’s ultimate post-season performer as he improved his playoff record to 10-2.
The cocky Jets had often talked a better game than they played, but had backed up their bravado in the playoffs and looked ready to do so again falling behind 24-0, before launching a stirring second-half rally that threw a fright into a frigid crowd.
The game was one of the coldest played in Pittsburgh with temperatures a teeth-chattering minus 9.5oC at kickoff, but the Arctic-like conditions could not spoil the party as fans from both teams, some wearing snowmobile suits and winter survival gear, packed into Heinz Field after a day spent tailgating in freezing temperatures.
The buildup to the AFC Championship game was strangely subdued, compared with the trash-talking and chest-thumping the Jets had engaged in ahead of their clashes with the Colts and the Patriots.
The respect was well deserved as the Steelers scored on their first possession and never trailed after Roethlisberger engineered a time-crunching, nine-minute, 15-play scoring drive capped by Rashard Mendenhall diving over from the one.
In the second quarter, Shaun Suisham added a 20-yard field goal and on the next possession Roethlisberger scampered over from two yards out to cap another clinical 66-yard drive to jump in front 17-0.
The Steelers top-ranked defense also got in on the action when Ike Taylor stripped New York quarterback Mark Sanchez of the ball and William Gay scooped up the loose ball and returned it 19 yards for another score.
With 14 seconds left in the half, Nick Folk finally put New York on the scoreboard with a 42-yard field-goal.
The Jets then flew out of the half, Sanchez hooking up with Santonio Holmes for a 45-yard touchdown to trim the Pittsburgh advantage to 24-10 and suddenly a game that had threatened to become a rout was transformed into a nail-biter as the Jets took command.
The Jets put a scare into the crowd of 66,662 — the biggest to ever to attend a Steelers game — when they worked the ball down to the Pittsburgh one early in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers defense denied the Jets a touchdown, but New York would not come away empty-handed, sacking Roethlisberger for a safety after Pittsburgh had regained possession.
There was more drama as the Jets rally continued, Sanchez hitting Jerricho Cotchery with a four-yard touchdown strike to trim the Steelers lead to 24-19, but the Steelers dug in and were able to run out the clock to clinch a nervous victory.
“We knew we’d come back,” Ryan said. “Everybody’s doubted us all year, but we thought we could win the game.”
PACKERS 21, BEARS 14
The resurgent and gritty Green Bay Packers earned a once-unthinkable trip to the Super Bowl by easing past the Chicago Bears on Sunday to claim the NFC Championship.
Aaron Rodgers was not at his best, but he led the way for the Packers, completing 17 of 30 passes for 244 yards, while rushing for a score against one of the NFL’s top defenses.
“It’s a dream come true, it’s an incredible feeling,” said Rodgers, who was a back-up to Brett Favre for three years before becoming the starter. “I’m lost for words. You have got to give credit to their defense. I didn’t play my best game.”
The Packers won the last two games of the regular season to sneak into the playoffs as a wild-card, before reeling off road victories over East Division champions Philadelphia, NFC top seeds Atlanta and North division champions the Bears.
Green Bay became the first No. 6 seed from the NFC to advance to the title game since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990.
The Packers were widely seen as favorites for the Super Bowl before injuries and erratic play appeared to doom their season.
Green Bay outgained the Bears 356-301 in total yards in a game that was not as close as it appeared, as Chicago dominated the fourth quarter, while the Packers tried to hang on.
“There’s a lot of disappointment in the locker room,” dejected Bears head coach Lovie Smith said. “I feel like we made progress with our program this year. Eventually, we’ll put that ring on.”
The NFL’s longest and most bitter rivalry was one-sided in the early going, leaving the fans with little to cheer about and unable to keep warm as frigid temperatures and a biting wind swirled around the sold-out Soldier Field.
Green Bay led 14-0 at halftime, outgaining the Bears 252-103 and serving notice that this was not the same team that split with the Bears during the regular season.
Rodgers scored on a naked bootleg on the opening drive of the game, reaching the end zone on the left side, before Bears safety Danieal Manning smacked him out of bounds.
The play capped a seven-play, 84-yard-drive and set the tone for the game, the 182nd all-time meeting between the two rivals from the NFC North.
James Starks made it 14-0 with 11 minutes left in the opening half with a four-yard touchdown run over the right side, reaching out with the ball to just reach the goal-line.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was removed from the game in the third quarter with a knee injury and he was replaced by veteran Todd Collins.
Cutler, who was brilliant in his playoff debut in last week’s 35-24 victory over Seattle, was harassed by the Packers all afternoon and completed six of 14 passes for 80 yards.
Collins, a 16-year veteran, was unable to rally the Bears and misfired on all four passes, before he was replaced by Caleb Hanie, a little-known third-stringer who had attempted only 14 passes in his NFL career.
With Hanie at the helm, Chester Taylor scored on a one-yard plunge off right tackle with 12 minutes, 2 seconds left in regulation to trim the Packers’ lead to 14-7.
Green Bay iced the game when nose tackle B.J. Raji stepped in front of Matt Forte and intercepted a Hanie pass, running 18 yards for a score to give the Packers a 21-7 lead.
Chicago’s last gasp came four plays later when Hanie hit Earl Bennett on a 35-yard touchdown to trim the Bears’ deficit to 21-14 with just under five minutes left.
Hanie finished with 13 completions in 20 attempts for 153 yards, but was unable to mount a game-tying drive.
On fourth and five from the Packers’ 29, Sam Shields picked off a Hanie pass with 37 seconds to go, igniting a celebration.
“It’s one of those ‘oops’ types of things, where you don’t see a guy and he just pops at the last season,” Hanie said of Shields’ pickoff.
The Packers will be playing in their first Super Bowl since losing to the Denver Broncos 31-24 following the 1997 season.
“Everybody stepped up and played the way they were supposed to play and that’s what you have to have,” Packers receiver Donald Driver said. “The comfort level hasn’t been big since March and it’s not going to change. We have four more quarters to go and we have to put that ring on our finger.”
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